The Paper Pulpit
Residents in the Middle East 2,000 years ago lived in cities surrounded by a wall which gave them protection from enemies. Christians also have a wall of defense against the sinful desires that wage war against them — the Bible defines that wall as self-control. Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” Proverbs 16:32 expresses the same thought, “Better is he who controls his temper than he who takes a city.”
Christians who lack self-control are as vulnerable as ancient cities were that had no surrounding wall. We yield easily to ungoverned passions, offering little or no resistance. Dishonesty can lead to lying. Greed can lead to stealing what belongs to others. Anger can lead to murder. Opening the door to lust quickly leads to adultery.
Self-control is defined as “the governing of one’s own desires, the ability to avoid excesses, to stay within reasonable bounds.” But self-control for the Christian is much more than the ability to control our bodily appetites and desires. It also involves the control of our thoughts, emotions and speech. It involves saying yes to what we should do — such as Bible study, prayer, stewardship of time, talent and resources, serving others. It also involves saying no to what we should not do. “If anyone would come after me,” said Jesus, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The translators of the New International Version use the expression self-control to translate two different words from the original language. The first word refers primarily to moderation or temperance in the gratification of our desires and appetites. The second is a word that conveys the idea of allowing sound judgment to control our desires and appetites, our thoughts, emotions and actions. Sound judgment is critical to the exercise of self-control, for it enables the believer to not only distinguish the good from the evil, but also to choose that which is best above that which is good.
But sound judgment is not enough to enable us to practice self-control. Inner strength is also essential. All too often we know very well what we ought to do, but we do not do it. We allow feelings or circumstances to overrule our judgment. Ultimately, self-control is the exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgment that enables us to do, think and say the things that are pleasing to God.
The best guideline for evaluating the control of our thoughts is found in Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” What we think about is very likely what we will do. In other words, our minds are mental greenhouses where unlawful thoughts, once planted, are nurtured and watered before being transplanted into the real world where unlawful and/or immoral actions take place.
The gates to what controls our thoughts are our eyes and ears. What we see or read or hear largely determines what we think and ultimately do. The thought life, then, is our first line of defense in the battle of self-control. It is why the psalmist prayed, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, My Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
The way to have self-control begins with having a thorough knowledge of God’s standard as revealed in the Bible. True spiritual self-discipline holds believers in bounds but never in bonds. Its effect on our lives is to enlarge, expand and liberate. It is why James describes God’s Word as “the perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25).
The Rev. D.E. Parkerson is retired pastor at First Baptist Church of Sanford.